The following is a biography of Frankie Darro's life, compiled from a variety of sources. Information on Frankie's professional and private life is difficult to find, plus articles and books frequently contradict each other. I have attempted to compile an accurate account of this man's career, but I am sure there are things I have not covered and possibly I have made some mistakes. If you have any corrections to make or can offer any further information, or would just like to be informed of updates to this information, please feel free to e-mail me!
1917 - 1930 | 1931 - 1932 | 1933 - 1934 | 1935 - 1937
1938 - 1942 | 1943 - 1949 | 1950 - 1976
1917 - 1930
Frankie Darro was born Frank Johnson on December 22, 1917 to Frank Johnson, Sr. and his wife Ada. His birthplace is commonly listed as Chicago, although one unconfirmed report says it’s very likely he was born on a train. His parents were a husband and wife aerialist team which were touring with the Sells Floto Circus as The Flying Johnsons.
Having been born into a circus family, it was only natural that the youngster would be brought up to take his place in that world. Frank Coghlan Jr. relates in his autobiography, They Still Call Me Junior, that he first saw Frankie at the age of four on the set of a movie entitled A Prince of a King, and that even at that early age Frankie was an accomplished tumbler, performing the backflips and head spin he would be seen doing in later movies. Frankie apparently could stand on his head and hands soon after he could walk. This child of veteran circus performers was a natural . . . almost.
Diana Serra Cary (better known to movie fans as Baby Peggy) paints a darker side of the picture in her book, Hollywood’s Children. In it she explains that the elder Johnson conscientiously started training his only son for the family act as soon as he could toddle, but that Frankie displayed an unforgivable fear of heights. Against his mother’s wishes, Frankie was put through a rigorous drilling every day between acts where his father would stretch a tight wire between two posts, barely a foot above the ground, and make Frankie walk its ten-foot length. Eventually the wire would be raised to three feet, then six, then ten, and so on.
While his fear of heights did not go away, Frankie did learn to suppress it, but he knew eventually his father would be wanting him to climb the tall ladder and take part in the aerial routines performed by his parents and their new Italian partner.
But fate had other plans for Frankie. When the circus reached Long Beach, California, in the early 20's (I’ve seen dates that indicate it was 1922, but other information indicates it may have been earlier than that), Ada suffered from a complete nervous breakdown. One unconfirmed story indicates that she may have been having an affair with the third party of the aerialist act, a man named Giovanni, and that the discovery of this affair may be what led to her breakdown. It’s also very possible that Frankie’s father was very bitter about this development, and may have refused her any access to the boy from then on.
The circus continued on its way without The Flying Johnsons and the family found itself stranded in California with no prospects for the future.
Diana Serra Cary further reports that somewhere in his travels the elder Johnson had made the acquaintance of a man named Ralph Ince, who had become a movie producer. Without any other skills outside of circus performing, the father now looked to his son to become a source of income, and took Frankie to Ince’s studio, where he was given a part in a movie called Judgement of the Storm with Wallace Beery. (Frank Coghlan’s book has Frankie in the aforementioned Prince of a King, doubling acrobatics for another boy, before this but it’s likely that both stories are true, with the doubling coming before the billed work for Ince. Yet another report states that Frankie’s first role for Ince was in Metro’s Half-A-Dollar Bill starring Anna Q. Nilsson). It’s not clear who decided on the name change, but it was on his first Ince film that Frankie’s last name was changed from Johnson to Darro and he would remain Darro for the rest of his career (although his name appears on many credits spelled as Darrow). Frankie’s father also found work in the movies as a stuntman.
Frankie’s natural talent and charming screen presence made him a staple in silent films throughout the 20's. The list of silent films he appeared in includes no less than 70 titles. Among these were a couple of leading parts in Little Mickey Grogan (1927; photo, left) and The Circus Kid (1928). Sadly, most of Frankie’s silent film appearances have been lost, as nitrate film from that period was often stored incorrectly (which led to it being chemically destroyed or catching fire) or melted down to save the silver nitrate for other uses. It's heartbreaking to read through the list of movies it is known Frankie appeared in knowing there is little or no chance of ever seeing them (although silent movies are still being rediscovered around the world, giving hope to lovers of that era of movies.)
One notable performance which fortunately was not lost is Frankie’s very brief but adorable appearance in Flesh and the Devil (1926), co-starring John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. Frankie’s scene is right before the memorable shot of Gilbert and Garbo dancing among a crowd, the camera fixed on their fabulous expressions. Frankie adds some comic relief to the scene by playing a very small boy who keeps asking a young woman to dance with him. The woman declines, hoping to be asked by Gilbert. It is only when she’s bypassed by Gilbert for Garbo that she accepts the dance from the diminutive but extremely formal dance partner.
Among the many films lost are the series of silent westerns Frankie made for FBO with Tom Tyler (photo, below). Frankie appeared as a sidekick to Tom in these films, and was often seen riding a feisty Shetland pony. There have been many references to Frankie’s work on these movies in various Western film books, and all seem to agree that Frankie idolized Tom and was a terrific stuntman and performer in his own right. Frankie undoubtedly learned much of the horsemanship which would carry him through the latter part of his career while working on these films. In one Western film book, the author describes a scene from Cowboy Cop (1926) in which Frankie is dressed in formal wear, complete with tails, and dancing the Charleston. One can only imagine what wonderful young performances of Frankie’s may be forever lost to us. As it stands, only The Texas Tornado is the only one of these movies to be in circulation.
For reasons not altogether clear, Frankie did not seem to make any screen appearances in 1930. Of course this was the notable period of change from silents to talkies in the film industry, and the whole business was changing rapidly. It has been stated that in the early days of sound children’s voices were known to come across as very irritating to audience’s ears, but this is not likely the reason for his absence from the screen. All we do know is Frankie again came to the screen in 1931 and started the next phase of his career.